When Words Fail Us

Language

I remember sitting in the boat – a welcome relief on a warm summer day at the World Fair in NY City. The cool of the water and the lilting song seemed restful, even to a small boy. The dolls sang to us in more languages than I ever knew existed. They sang of a world full of laughter and tears. Indeed; even as a child I had experienced both. They sang of “hopes and fears”. Yes. I could relate. I knew what fear felt like, even as  a little boy. And I had also experienced how a smile could warm a room. Perhaps the song seems trite; but the words rang true. It’s A Small World.

But words are fragile.

Perhaps you have heard of the woman who thought “lol” meant “lots of love”. As she was sharing with family and friends via Facebook the sad news of the death of a beloved aunt she was concluding each of her posts with “lol”. Her daughter was mentioned in a number of these posts, so the young woman was seeing this message from her mother sent out to various and sundry relatives and friends: “Our beloved Aunt Marianne died peacefully following a long bout with cancer. She will be sorely missed. Lol …” Unable to reach her mother by phone, she sent her a Facebook message. “MOM,” she screamed virtually, “do you know what ‘lol’ means?” The mother replied: “It means ‘lots of love’.” “Not exactly,” replied her daughter, laughing out loud.

And then there’s the time a BBC article referred to the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) as the “Large Hard-On Collider“.

As a person who as tickled the ivories for 55 years, I’ve always been particular about how I pronounced the word “pianist”.

Some things are said in innocence. Some are said in ignorance. Some things get said before much thought has gone into it.

My wife recently learned that a kilo of raisins is a lot of raisins. We were at a market place in France buying food and supporting the local economy when Jan wandered off while I was buying meat and potatoes. She saw a fruit stand, made the deal, but needed money which I was carrying in order to consummate it. “I think I just bought a lot of raisins,” she said, asking me for a lot of money.

I was standing on a balcony on a warm summer evening with two physicists. A beautiful moon shone on the horizon and the picturesque village we are staying in is surrounded by the Jura Mountains and the Alps. One of the physicists is a particle physicist. And while the machine they use is the largest one in the world, still I managed to say something mildly offensive. “Go big, or go home,” was my comment. “That’s not the smartest thing to say to a particle physicist,” I was informed.

I am told there are over forty operative languages at work in the Burlington (Vermont) School System. On Wednesday afternoon my wife and I picked up three children from school, one of whom speaks a language only five million people in the world speak – Danish. The school is French speaking and my two other charges are English speakers. I forgot to ask the three-year old Dane’s mother how to say: Do you have to go potty? in his native tongue. One thing is certain: the kids are getting raisins for an after-school snack.

What a great gift language is! The possibility for communication, for naming things, for conveying feelings and ideas – it’s all quite miraculous. And then, there is the infinite potential for miscues, for speaking out of turn. And then I went and spoiled it all by saying something stupid like “I love you”. Our words demonstrate our highest aspirations and our poorest sense of timing.

May we revel in the gift of tongues! May we roll around in a guttural “rrrrr” and wonder at why a window is “feminine”. May we ponder how the name for the divine in one language can be an expression of acquisition in another, the only difference being an additional “T”. Speak up a storm! (which, by the way, is the name of that little Danish boy who visited us briefly.)  Let the babble flow, and let us rejoice in it.

Check out Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on Body Language.

Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.